Saturday, August 6, 2016

Is There A Mural To This Story?

From their earliest days of life, children respond to art. Whether staring at a mobile that dangles above their crib, trying to cram a brightly colored plastic object into their mouth, or feeling the rugs and furniture they encounter as they crawl around a room, they are steadily learning to identify colors and shapes.

While several years may pass before they can associate words with what they see, a child's sense of wonder and curiosity is fascinating to observe. As they start playing with crayons, building blocks, and a growing variety of toys, children start relating to their environment through more sophisticated eyes. Guided experimentation from parents and teachers helps to give them a sense of ownership in even the most casual process of creating art.

Once children graduate from drawing turkeys by outlining the fingers on their hand (or making primitive sculptures with macaroni), their minds start questioning everything they see. Consider how this six-year-old boy describes the joy of encountering art in public spaces.

Sometimes an object which has been designed for strictly utilitarian purposes gets an artistic makeover which imbues it with new meaning and importance. In Northampton, Massachusetts, a group of artists were invited to make the town's benches more aesthetically appealing. The result was the Northampton BenchWalk, a public art project that brought both whimsy and beauty to otherwise dull surfaces.

In 2015, artist Anastasiya Zavgorodnaya rose to the Parsons Challenge by designing a series of benches to be placed along walking trails in the Hudson Valley. As she explains:
"I designed a stone bench in an Art Deco style with an indented surface on the backrest of the bench to be designated as a canvas space where local contemporary artists can apply to create work. Throughout Dutchess and Ulster County, there is a broad history of local arts and an array of new arts initiatives. A simple way to push pedestrians further down the trails could be to create art benches that serve as a break point where one can also experience original artwork in a natural setting. In this SketchUp rendering, I have used my own original digital art and pieces by some of my favorite artists: Albert Oehlen, Isaias Crow, James Rosenquist, and Josef Albers. I envision abstract and street art as parts of the trail maintain more of an urban vibe and to pique the interest of all ages to seek out and explore all the work on the benches along the trails and potentially all along the Hudson Valley.”

When artists retire from working in the business world, they may opt to refocus their effort on creating a piece of public art that would have had little appeal to their previous employer. In 2009, after 17 years of work as the Chief of Design for Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), Chris Bangle relocated to Clavesana, a tiny village south of Turin. There he came up with the idea for The Big Bench Community Project. As Bangle explains:
"It is always exciting watching a fresh idea spread its wings and fly to discover new people, attitudes and perspectives on things we already think we know. This is what happened with the Big Bench. Everything started as a project amongst friends and neighbors. Now it is winning the hearts and passion of many people that otherwise would probably not have imagined looking at the Italian mountains and vineyards sitting on an out-of-scale piece of outdoor furniture. That's the beauty in this kind of design."
“Objects become iconic not only because they are driven by a marketing machine, but because the intrinsic idea is so seductive and so easily achievable that it creates in itself the natural conditions for its duplication and distribution. Maybe some day visitors coming from afar will carry away such a strong memory of the benches it will inspire them to replicate the concept. Maybe one day we will see a Peace Bench in a truly troubled part of the world where the opportunity to sit, see things from a fresh perspective, and once again feel like a child, is desperately needed.”
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Public art comes in all shapes and sizes. For many years, Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude were notorious for their gargantuan outdoor art projects (temporary installations that ranged from wrapping buildings and bridges in cloth to altering coastlines and landscapes).

Ever since its debut in 2004, Hearts in San Francisco has proven that an ongoing public art project can succeed on a much smaller and more intimate scale. As part of the original project, Bay area artists painted more than 130 heart-shaped sculptures which, after being displayed throughout the city for three months, were then auctioned off as part of a fundraising drive. The following clip shows artist John Kraft taking delivery of a blank sculpture and decorating it with a unique cityscape.

Since 2004, the project has raised nearly $2 million for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. Photos of each heart that has been painted can be viewed at the Foundation's Gallery of Hearts. The following video clip shows many of them on display in Union Square and at other locations throughout San Francisco.

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San Francisco's Mission District is known for its colorful wall murals. On most weekends, Precita Eyes Muralists conducts walking tours of the neighborhood's murals. Few of them, however, can match the scale of the artwork decorating the sides of The Women's Building.

Edythe Boone is one of the artists who created the MaestraPeace
mural on the walls of The Women's Building in San Francisco

Located just two blocks from my apartment, the former Dovre Hall used to function as a meeting space for the Sons of Norway as well as housing a popular neighborhood bar. In 1979, the building was purchased by San Francisco's Women's Center and transformed into the nation's first community center to be owned and operated by women. In 1984, several women artists (including Irene Perez, Juana Alicia, Yvonne Littleton, Miranda Bergman, Meera Desai, and Susan Kelk Cervantes) created the MaestraPeace mural, designed to depict the power and contributions of women throughout world history. Covering two sides of the building and standing five stories tall, it has become one of the largest murals in San Francisco. One of the artist-activists who participated in its creation (as well as helping in the mural's 2012 restoration) is Edythe Boone.

Berkeley muralist and community activist Edythe Boone

Now in her mid-70s, Boone grew up in Harlem, but left New York in 1978 when the city's crack cocaine epidemic started to infiltrate her neighborhood. She eventually ended up in Berkeley, where she has spent several decades painting outdoor murals as well as bringing her personal brand of arts education into the community. Whether inspiring students in one of West Oakland's middle schools or working with seniors at a community center in Richmond, Boone tries to empower people (who may never have thought of themselves as being artistic) to try their skills at collage work and learning how to paint.

Berkeley muralist and community activist Edythe Boone
teaches a young student about painting techniques 

A new documentary directed by Marlene “Mo” Morris entitled A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone (that was screened as part of the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) allows audiences to see the world through Edy’s eyes. The film takes veers into deeply personal territory when Boone's nephew, Eric Garner, is killed after being forced into a chokehold while attempting to sell cigarettes on Staten Island. Having raised three sons and lived long enough to become a great-grandmother, the news of Garner's death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement allow the filmmaker to add a new dimension to her portrait of a woman who has spent a lifetime expressing herself through her art. As Boone says, “Our lives matter. We will not be disempowered by those who judge us for our age, gender, or the color of our skin.”

A 1997 mural entitled "Those We Love, We Remember" by
Edythe Boone can be seen in  San Francisco's Balmy Alley

Rich in visuals, Morris's documentary follows a woman whose work can be appreciated in art galleries as well as on five-story edifices, who can be seen climbing scaffolding as well as teaching children how to get in touch with their emotions through art. A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone delivers a powerful portrait of a determined artist, educator, and survivor who has never given up on her craft or her mission of creating the kind of multicultural art that can strengthen diverse communities. Here's the trailer:

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